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December 16th, 2018, Pastor Galen Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

Making Room For Presents

Well there are eight days until Christmas, and how many of you are finished with your Christmas shopping? I usually like to purchase my gifts online because I really don’t like shopping at the mall, but I realized the other day that I’m running out of time to get any more gifts shipped here in time for Christmas, so I may indeed end up at the mall on Christmas Eve along with everyone else!

A few years ago, our family decided to do something a little different to prepare for Christmas. Knowing that we would be getting a lot of gifts of clothes and toys from the grandparents and other relatives, we decided to spend some time before Christmas getting rid of things in our house in order to make room for the presents we would be receiving.

Now, this was an interesting exercise, because we didn’t know exactly what gifts we would get on Christmas, so we couldn’t get rid of stuff that we absolutely needed. But we just decided to get rid of the few things in our house that we knew we no longer needed or wanted, in order to make space for the new things we’d be getting on Christmas.

And you know what we found out?  We found out that we had a LOT of stuff in our house that we didn’t need – even before we received any Christmas presents that year. If you’ve ever tried to declutter your house, or if you’ve ever moved from one house to another, you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s amazing how much stuff we can accumulate, and before we know it we have so many things that we don’t know what to do with them all.

The Fruit of Repentance

In Luke 3, John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Lord, and he tells the people to repent. Now if you remember from last week, “repentance” entails a shift in one’s perspective, a change in one’s mindset. It’s a 180 degree turn, it involves admitting you were going the wrong way, and turning around and going in the right direction. John the Baptist knew that the people had a distorted perspective of who they thought the Messiah would be. He knew that they needed to have a mindset change if they were going to see and recognize Jesus for who he really was.

In response to John the Baptist’s call to repentance, the people asked John what they should do. Instead of giving them some sort of abstract, otherworldly, uber spiritual-sounding answer, John gives them some pretty concrete, down-to-earth advice. He tells them that if any of them have two shirts they should share with someone who has none, and if anyone has food they should do the same. To the tax collectors, John says, “don’t collect any more than you are required to [collect]” (Luke 3:13). And to the soldiers he says, “don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14).

It’s interesting to note that each of these responses deals with money or possessions. But it also makes sense when you stop to think about it. We deal with money and possessions every day. They’re the stuff of life. We spend the majority of our time working to earn, save, spend or invest our money, buying things, or wishing we could buy more things, so it makes sense that any sort of major life-change would have to involve how we relate to money and things.

How Many Shirts Do We Really Need?

Now in our society, if someone only had two shirts, we would think that they really needed more shirts! I came across an article in the Gentleman’s Gazette that suggests that a man who works in an office setting should own a bare minimum of 10 dress shirts, but author says that it would probably be better to have 20 to 30 dress shirts, and the author admitted that he himself owns somewhere between 60 and 70 dress shirts!  And according to Forbes magazine, “In 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, that figure is 30 outfits — one for every day of the month.”

Now, whether or not you own that many shirts outfits, most of us probably own more than two. But according to John the Baptist, if you own two shirts then you have enough to share with someone who has none!

Now we know that sharing with those who are in need is a good thing, but what does this have to do with repentance, and why would John the Baptist tell people to give extra clothing and food away in order to prepare themselves for Jesus’s arrival?

It’s been said that every time we give away something that belongs to us, we’re undoing a decision that we made in the past — a decision to either buy that item, or to receive it, or to hold onto it. So when we give something away that’s near and dear to us, there’s very much a spiritual element to that act, as we’re consciously making a decision to let go of something that is or was once precious to us.

When our family decluttered our house in preparation for Christmas, we found that we already had so much more than we needed, and giving things away gave us a whole new perspective as we gave and received gifts that Christmas.

You Don’t have to Be Rich to Do Good

For the people in John the Baptist’s day, coming to the place where they were willing to part with their goods or where they were willing to be content with what they had was very much a necessary act in order for them to see and receive Jesus as their Messiah.

You see, most of the people that John was speaking to probably didn’t have very much. They most likely lived day-to-day, with barely enough to get by. There really wasn’t such a thing as a Middle Class in that society, so unless you were extremely wealthy, then you were considered poor.

At the same time, health and wealth were seen as blessings from God. According to the prevailing mindset of the day, if you were healthy and wealthy, then God must be happy with you, and you must have done something right. Generosity was held up as an ideal in Jewish culture, so those with wealth had the capacity to give more, and thus they were seen as more righteous and more holy. Whereas if you were poor or sick, then you really weren’t able to help others and the thought was that you must have done something wrong to deserve the state that you were in in the first place.

If we’re honest, it’s not too different in our society. While we may feel pity or compassion towards those who don’t have enough to get by, it’s easy to find ourselves wondering how they got into that situation in the first place. At the same time, we look at those who are wealthy, and we think to ourselves, “if I were rich like them, I could do so much good in the world!” or “If I made as much money as they make, or if I won the lottery, I would be able to give so much more money away!”

But John the Baptist was inviting the people of his day (and us today) to consider that perhaps wealth does not equal righteousness or God’s favor, and that perhaps we don’t need to be rich in order to do good in the world. I think John was saying that God is calling each and every one of us to do good with what we already have. If all we have is enough for today and tomorrow, then we already have more than someone who is hungry, or starving, or in need of food today. I think this was exactly the mind-set change that John’s audience needed and we ourselves need in order to welcome and embrace Jesus as our King.

God Invites Everyone to Join In

Zephaniah chapter 3 tells us that “at that time…I will rescue the lame, I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame” (Zephaniah 3:19). I think this is a beautiful picture of what Jesus came to do. Jesus gathered the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, the people who society overlooked, the people that others thought were useless. And Jesus gave them praise and honor. He lifted up those who were downcast, and healed those who were sick. He invited anyone and everyone to be a part of his kingdom.

And I love this phrase from Zephaniah, that “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17-18).

Isn’t that beautiful? God taking great delight in us, and rejoicing over us with singing!

This is what John the Baptist was inviting the people to see, hear and experience. Through shifting their perspective, through giving to those who were in need, through learning to be content with what they already had, John was inviting them to see, hear and experience the goodness, and grace, and mercy of a God who saves, a God who is with us, who delights in us, who wants to rejoice over us with singing, and a Messiah who came to invites anyone and everyone to follow him and to participate in God’s kingdom here on this earth.

Make Room for God’s Presence in Our Lives

And so this Advent Season, I want to invite us to make room, not necessarily for more presents under the Christmas tree, but for God’s presence in our lives.

In order to do that, it might actually be helpful to get rid of some stuff. Maybe there are physical objects that you could give away to help you shift your perspective about what you really need and want. Or maybe you need to ask God to clear your mind of the thoughts that if you only had more money, or power, or education, or wealth then you could do more good in the world, and ask God to show you how you can live for God with what you’ve already been given.

Red Carpet

December 9th, 2018, Pastor Galen, Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6

Wrong Way on a One-Way Track

How many of you have ever been driving in your car or riding a bus or train and realized you were heading the opposite direction of where you wanted to go?

I think one of the worst feelings in the world is when you miss your exit on the highway and you realize that you’re going to have to keep driving for several miles in the wrong direction before you can get off at an exit and turn around in order to go the right way.

Now most of us in our society don’t like to admit that we’re wrong, and we like it even less when someone else points out that we’re wrong.  But even though it’s not very much fun to have to admit that you’ve made a mistake, it’s much better to turn around and go the right way, than to continue stubbornly on in the wrong direction, and if and when someone helps us realize that we’re going the wrong way, we should be eternally grateful to them because they might have saved us a lot of wasted time and hassle.

Prepare the Way for the Lord

In our Gospel Lesson today, John the Baptist preached a baptism of “repentance.” Repentance literally means “a change of mind.” It implies a recognition that one is looking at something from the wrong perspective, and it involves humbling yourself to admit that you’ve been wrong, and to turn around and face the right direction.

John the Baptist’s call for repentance was not random or out of the blue, even though it did take place in the wilderness (of all places). John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness, calling people to a mindset change in order to “prepare the way for the Lord” (Luke 3:4), and this was done in accordance with the prophecies in Malachi and Isaiah.. John the Baptist’s call to repentance was about preparing the way for the Lord, helping people get ready to welcome Jesus as their King.

In the Isaiah prophecy, this voice in the wilderness calls out that “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth” (Luke 3:5), so that all people can see and experience the salvation of our God.

Rolling Out the Red Carpet

Filling in valleys, leveling mountains, and making rough paths smooth in preparation for a king — this is sort of like rolling out the red carpet for a celebrity in our day.

You know, I was thinking about why we roll out the red carpet for celebrities to walk on. It’s not like famous people can’t walk on the ground, that they necessarily have these dainty little feet that have to walk on soft carpet.

Really the red carpet is meant to call attention to them, to show everyone around them that this person is special, and to make it easier for people to see them and know that they’re important. Red carpet makes it obvious that this person is supposed to be the center of attention.

In the same way, John’s call to repentance and the call to fill in the valleys and level the mountains was about helping people to see and recognize Jesus, to get ready to experience the salvation that he came to bring.

Not Who They Expected

You see, Jesus was not at all the type of King they were expecting. The people John the Baptist was speaking to probably did not think the Messiah would be born in the tiny town of Bethlehem, laid as a baby in a manger, born into the family of a poor carpenter.

They most likely thought the promised Messiah would be born in a palace, or perhaps come as a conquering military hero. They thought he would overthrow the Roman government and restore the kingdom of Israel. I’m sure their minds went in countless different directions as they imagined who he would be and what he would look like. But no matter who they thought he would be or what they imagined he would look like, their imaginations fell far short of who he really was and what he came to do.

And so, John knew that they needed to have a mindset change in order to see and recognize Jesus when he came. They needed to turn completely around, to face the opposite direction, to look the other way. They needed to give up their preconceived notions of who they thought the Messiah would be, to recognize they were looking in the wrong direction and to turn around in order to welcome Jesus. They needed the valleys to be raised up, the mountains to be lowered. They needed the rough paths made smooth, the red carpet to be rolled out so they could recognize their Messiah.

That’s why John the Baptist came. To prepare the way, to encourage them to repent, change their minds, and turn around. They needed a whole new perspective so that they didn’t miss him when he came.

Now, the people who didn’t do this, the people who didn’t repent and allow God to change their mindset, in fact did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. And ironically they were the religious elites of the day. The priests, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law. They didn’t heed John’s call to repent because they didn’t think they were going in the wrong direction in the first place. And so they just kept going stubbornly in the wrong direction, zoomed right past their exit, with no inclination of turning around. And they essentially missed Jesus when he came.

On the other hand, the people who did heed John’s call to repent, the people who turned around and allowed God to change their mindset — they recognized Jesus when he came along, and they welcomed and received him as their king. These were the people who knew they weren’t perfect. They were the common everyday folks. They were the sinners, the tax collectors, the marginalized and outcasts, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. These people admitted they were wrong, they accepted John’s invitation to a baptism of repentance, and because they did, they recognized Jesus and received him accordingly.

This Christmas

This Christmas season it strikes me that there are a lot of people in our world who are in need of a mindset change in order to recognize Jesus for who he really was and is. Even around Christmas, which is supposed to be the celebration of Jesus’s birth, all of us can get so caught up in the busyness of the season that we miss the whole point.

Some of us are only thinking about ourselves, and what we want for Christmas. But I find that for many of us, especially those of us who are parents or grandparents, it can be so easy to get so caught up in trying to make it a wonderful and memorable experience for our children or grandchildren or for those around us that we forget to step back, and to remember and reflect on the miracle of Christ’s birth for ourselves.

And still others of us find ourselves around this time of the year constantly chasing those ever elusive feelings of peace and joy and satisfaction that we think we’re supposed to feel around the holidays.

I think for each and every one of us, it’s possible for us to miss the point of Christmas, to miss Jesus for who he really is and why he came. Advent, this season of preparation leading up to Christmas, is an invitation for us to have a mindset change, a perspective shift, in order to see and recognize Jesus and to receive him anew this Christmas.

You see, Jesus wasn’t born in a manger just so we could have an excuse to give each other wonderfully expensive gifts, nor did he come to make us really stressed out every December, trying to make sure everyone around us is having a good time. Jesus didn’t come to this earth to make us more busy than we already are, nor did he come just so we could experience some ephemeral feelings of peace and joy in the midst of a chaotic world.

Jesus came to bring hope in the midst of despair, love that shines in the midst of darkness, a joy that remains even through suffering and loss, and a peace that surpasses all understanding and lasts forever.

This Christmas, let’s remember that all of the holiday lights, the trees, the songs, the times together with family, the gifts, the decorations — they’re all meant to highlight and to showcase the amazing, miraculous and wonderful gift that we’ve already been given — Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is the point.

When we set up the decorations and turn on the lights, let’s think of it as rolling out the red carpet to welcome our King. It may give us a sense of satisfaction and joy to look at the holiday lights, but they’re not ends in and of themselves. Let’s remember that the lights point us to the One who is the true Light of the World. And as we give and receive gifts with our friends and loved ones this Christmas, let’s remember together the true Gift that we were given in the person of Jesus Christ.

This morning I want to invite us to ask God to give us a perspective shift,  to change our mindset. Let’s ask God to prepare our hearts to welcome our King Jesus. Let’s ask God to make us over anew so that instead of trying to make Jesus into who we want him to be, we would receive Jesus for who he is. Let’s allow him to change us from the inside out, so that we would experience the true and lasting peace and joy that only Jesus can bring.

Stand

December 2nd, 2018, Pastor Galen, First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

Fear and Apprehension

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that people will feel “faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world” (Luke 21:26).  I think this is a fairly apt description of many people in our world today. Many of us live in a constant state of fear and apprehension, worried about everything from terrorism to botulism, from government corruption, to environmental pollution. We worry about our own personal finances, or whether we’re gaining too much weight. We’re worried about extinction of endangered species and climate change. And then of course there are the fears we have about our own physical safety and that of our family members.

And the news often doesn’t help. It plays into our fears. There’s always a new food to steer clear of, a new health study that comes out saying that something is bad for us that used to be considered good. Anything that happens on a local level gets broadened out so that the whole world seems to be in danger. If one person experienced it, then we might all experience it. And the rise of social media has exponentially multiplied our capacity to be aware of all of the possible hidden dangers present throughout the world.

All of this adds up to us as a people being rather fainthearted and apprehensive.

But In the midst of this, Jesus tells his disciples and us today, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

Stand and Wait

“Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”

The people living at the time of Jesus were in great need of redemption. And not just spiritual redemption. They needed to be set from from physical oppression. Jewish people were ethnic minorities living under Roman occupation. They were essentially held captive by Rome. Heavily taxed, under constant threat of violence or retaliation, they longed for freedom. They longed for God to intervene and to restore their rightful place as citizens of the Kingdom of Israel, to set a Jewish King back on the throne and to grant their nation complete autonomy.

In the midst of that, some, like the Zealots, thought they should revolt violently against Rome. The infamous Sicarri (a Jewish extremist group within the Zealot party) advocated assassinating Jewish leaders who colluded with Rome. Others, like the religious sect called the Pharisees, thought that perhaps if they were just spiritual enough and holy enough, if they prayed enough prayers, if they gave enough alms to the poor, if they kept all of the sacrifices and holy days just right, then perhaps God would intervene and restore their land.

And yet Jesus tells his disciples not to try to try to take over Rome by force, and not to be afraid, but to “stand and lift up your heads.” It’s a seemingly passive yet active and bold response. Standing with heads held high, for a people who were marginalized and politically oppressed, denotes a sense of dignity and self-worth. At the same, standing and waiting, suggests complete and utter trust and dependence on God alone for salvation.

Salvation and Security

The prophet Jeremiah’s words provide a measure of hope and relief in the midst of terror and apprehension:

‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. ‘In those days and at that time, I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior’ (Jeremiah 33:14-16).

Jeremiah’s words, spoken 600 years before the birth of Christ, acutely predict that the Savior would be a descendant of David, that he would do what was right and just, and that he would be an agent of peace and salvation in our world. Jesus showed us the right way to live, and revealed the thoughts and intentions of people’s hearts. Jesus made it possible for us to have peace with God and with others.

Ultimate we look to Jesus as our guide, as the template for how we live our lives. It’s been said that “Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we deserved to die.” Throughout Jesus’s lifetime he absorbed all of the pain and suffering, violence and oppression that this world could throw at him. All of the evil, greed, and corruption in the world converged together in a single moment as Jesus hung on the cross, and when Jesus breathed his last breath, sin and death were defeated and no longer hold any power over us. Through his death and resurrection Jesus conquered sin and death and the grave. He died to make it possible for us to be reconciled to God, he was raised to life so that we can have life.

And yet, even as we hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah, we know that there are parts of the prophecy that have yet to be fulfilled. Although the work that Jesus did on the cross brought about our spiritual salvation, and although Jesus laid out the path for us to live righteously and and pursue justice, our world still awaits God’s ultimate promise of total peace and security, which will only come to fruition when Christ returns. There are still wars. There are still famines and earthquakes, violence and discord, injustice and oppression, but on that day when Christ returns, all will be made right.

Wait and Work

And so we continue to wait. We continue to stand. We continue to have hope, even in the face of terror. We stand in humility but with dignity. We stand with our heads held high, yet we also kneel down in humble submission before God. We work tirelessly to bring about change in our world, but we admit our vulnerability and the reality that we cannot do it on our own. We acknowledge the pain and suffering that is still very much in existence in this world, even while we await the final restoration when Jesus will return to make all things right. We pray for miracles, while at the same time actively working for solutions to the problems plaguing our world today, believing that God is working in and through us to bring about God’s Kingdom on this earth.

The amazing reality is that as followers of Christ we are invited to be agents of God’s healing work in our world. We, apprehensive and fearful people though we are, are called and invited to be co-laborers with Christ in bringing about peace and safety and security in this world.

Advent

Last night I had the honor and privilege of attending the pre-dinner before the 46th Annual Mayor’s Christmas Parade, which many in our congregation have played a significant role in helping to make happen. At the dinner I saw many people from many different walks of life, gathered together with the common purpose to promote happiness and cheer during this festive season by coordinating this parade which has been such a long-standing tradition in our community. Our very own Tom Kerr has been coordinating the parade for 46 years. Today Christina will be co-emceeing the event, while several of us will be serving as judges, parade marshals, or even walking in the parade itself.

Now, our city is not a perfect city. Like any city we face a multitude of perennial problems, some that even threaten our physical safety. And yet it’s a beautiful thing to see people standing in the face of fear, marching and walking in a festive display of unity, community, and togetherness. It’s wonderful to see people of all ages coming together to show that our city is united, to show that no matter our socioeconomic, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds, we can come together to celebrate the holiday season and share in joy and festivity.

And it strikes me that this is what Advent is all about. It’s about choosing to have hope even in the midst of darkness. It’s about believing that God will one day make everything right, waiting and anticipating what is to come, while striving and working for good here and now. It’s about proclaiming to the world that Jesus has come and that he will come again. It’s about coming together to acknowledge our need and dependence on God and one another, and promoting peace and joy in a world where there is so much fear and apprehension.

And so in light of that, let us stand. Let us stand with humility and dignity, with utter trust and dependence on God. Let us allow Jesus to work in us and through us. Let us experience the joy of this season, even as we long for and anticipate the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises when Christ returns.

 

Christ the King

November 25th, 2018 (Christ the King Sunday), Pastor Galen 

2 Samuel 23:1-7 and John 18:33-37

A King Unlike Any Other

Today is “Christ the King Sunday,” the final Sunday of the Christian liturgical calendar, the last Sunday before we begin our season of advent.

It is fitting that we begin and end the Christian year with a focus on Jesus as King. During Advent we will prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of our King Jesus. Today during this culmination of our worship calendar, we acknowledge the fact that Jesus is already the King.

In truth, Jesus is a King unlike any other king this world has ever known. While kings are usually concerned with grasping and holding onto their power, Jesus intentionally gave us his power to come down to this earth, to be born as a baby, to live among the poor and powerless. Rather than amassing worldly wealth (as most kings strive to do), Jesus left the splendors of heaven to be born in a lowly manger. And rather than using military might to enforce his will, Jesus taught and modeled turning the other cheek and loving his enemies.

So it makes sense then that Pilate would be confused as to Jesus’ royalty. Many people were, and continue to be, confused to this day. Standing there in the early morning light in front of Pilate, shackled in chains, clothed in modest apparel, and with the haggard look of a purported criminal who had been questioned all night long, Jesus probably looked anything but kingly. A wise teacher? Perhaps. A prophet? Most likely (after all, prophets were often a little crazy). A healer? It was possible. But a king? A rather ridiculous suggestion to those present.

And yet, whether or not Pilate recognized it, and whether or not he appeared to be such, the truth was and is that Jesus is a King. And not just a king, but the King of kings and the Lord of lords (see Rev. 17:14). In other words, even though it very much appeared as though Pilate was the sovereign and Jesus was his subject, in actuality the reverse was true. Jesus was very much in control.

Like the Light of the Morning at Sunrise

The words that the Holy Spirit spoke through King David 1,000 years before the birth of Christ (recorded for us in 2 Samuel chapter 23) provide an illustrative and poetic

depiction of the coming reign of King Jesus:

‘When one rules over people in righteousness,

   when he rules in the fear of God,

he is like the light of morning at sunrise

   on a cloudless morning,

like the brightness after rain

   that brings grass from the earth.’ (2 Samuel 23:3b-4)

Although David liked to think that the rising sun was an apt description of his own righteous rule, the reality is that David’s monarchy, as well as Pilate’s and that of every other earthly leader, falls very much short of the sun’s brilliance and magnificence. The reigns of even the most righteous earthly rulers are often clouded by greed and corruption. Even the most well-intentioned leaders so often fall prey to the darkness of self-deception and deceit. And even the most judicious kings render unjust judgments from time to time.

The rising of the morning sun is an appropriate and powerful depiction of Christ’s Kingdom, however.

The rising of the sun is peaceful, yet persistent.

It’s mundane, and yet magnificent.

It’s vital to our survival, and yet we rarely give it a passing thought.

If you’re someone who prefers to experience the rising of the sun from the comfort of your bed, underneath your covers, fast asleep, you know that the sun is invasive. No matter how tightly you might draw your curtains to try to seal out the light, the sun seems to seek out and permeate even the smallest crack and crevice.  

Every time I watch the sun rise, I’m amazed. It’s a beautiful and magnificent sight to behold. And yet it happens every day. it’s occurrence is so frequent that usually we don’t even think about it, yet our lives are very much dependent on its recurrence.

Jesus’ Kingdom is very much like this. It’s so pervasive and comprehensive that we might miss it. It’s all around us and we live in the midst of it and yet so often take we it for granted, but when we really stop to think about it, it’s stunningly magnificent.

Our lives are very much dependent on Christ’s rule and reign, and yet we often go about our days with little thought for what would happen if Jesus were not in control.

The Reign of King Jesus

Because the Kingdom of King Jesus is so pervasive and yet so unlike any other that this world has ever known, it’s important for us to draw out some specific points of comparison.

You see, often we don’t imagine Jesus as a king walking this earth delivering kingly decrees. And yet Jesus did issue rules for his subjects to follow. He commanded us to love God and to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-39), and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12). He charged people to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17) and to let our lights shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify God (Matthew 5:16). He commanded us to live at peace with one another (Matthew 5:23-24), to love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), not to judge others (Matthew 7:1), and that when we are giving a banquet we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:13). He directed his followers to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 238:19).

Although Jesus did not raise up a physical army, he demanded absolute allegiance from his followers. He said that if anyone wants to be his disciple they “must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He decreed that we should to seek God’s Kingdom above all else (Matthew 6:33).

And although we don’t often think of Jesus going around pronouncing judgments, Jesus did utter stern warnings and rebukes to the Pharisees and religious leaders (see Luke 11:42-52) and anyone who heard his words but failed to put them into practice (Matthew 7:26). And Jesus told of a time when there would be a final judgement, when even the nations would be judged for how they treated the least of these (Matthew 25:31-46).

But Jesus didn’t only issue decrees and demand allegiance. He also transformed people’s hearts. Just like the warmth and glow of the early morning sun, the wisdom that came from Jesus’ mouth illuminated people’s hearts and minds, so that they came to understand things they had never understood before. Jesus’ deeds of power shed light into the deepest and darkest strongholds of the enemy. Jesus’ love radiated forth and touched even the innermost places of despair.

Only a King who was so holy, so perfect, so just and so righteous could, by his very presence, draw people into the warmth of God’s loving embrace, could cause people to freely give up all they had to follow Him, could transform people’s hearts and souls so that they willingly chose to pledge their allegiance to Jesus as their King.

An Invitation to Bask in Christ’s Glory

When I was a senior in high school our class took a trip to Ocean City. For several of my classmates it was the first time they had been to the beach. I remember my friend John was so excited to see the ocean, that as soon as we pulled up next to our hotel on the waterfront John jumped out of the van and ran towards the water. He climbed up on the wall separating the boardwalk from the sand and just plunged face first right into the sand.

I had seen the ocean before, but one thing I had never done was watched the sun rise over the water. I was determined to do so on that trip. And so I woke up early the next morning before everyone else and went out to the beach just as the sun was coming up over the horizon. And it was indeed a glorious sight to behold.

But I wasn’t content to just watch it from a distance. I had to get as close as possible. And so I plunged into the water and swam out as far as seemed safe (given the fact that there were no lifeguards around yet), and just watched the morning sun glisten on the water all around me.

There are no words that can encapsulate a moment like that, no picture that can adequately describe the ephemeral beauty of the sun rising over the ocean. I had no camera with me to record it, no one there to share that experience with me. All I could do was bask in the beauty and enjoy it.

This morning as we meditate on the kingly rule of Jesus, throughout Advent as we anticipate the birth of our Lord Jesus, and all throughout this upcoming liturgical year, I want to invite us to just bask in Christ’s glorious presence. His Kingdom is unlike any other kingdom. It’s hard to describe it, impossible to depict it. You just have to experience it.

Unanswered Questions

At the same time, I know that there are so many unanswered questions. If Christ is reigning on the throne, why is there so much evil and pain and suffering in the world? If God is in charge, why do bad things happen?

These are of course the perennial questions. All I can say is that, although Christ has instituted his rule and reign, His Kingdom has yet to come to completion. Although Jesus is sovereign, not everything that happens on this earth is in accordance with God’s will. There are forces of evil at work in the world, and as people we make our own decisions, many times not in in line with what Jesus has decreed.

And yet each one of us are invited to live into the reality of Christ’s kingdom, to simultaneous hope and long for the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom, while praying, serving and working for his Kingdom here and now. That is why we pray for Christ’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

So this morning I invite us to pray, to dream, to work, to long, to bask in the reality of Christ’s Kingdom, and at the same time to roll up our sleeves and get busy. Let’s acknowledge Jesus as King, even as we anticipate and await the arrival of the ultimate fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom. Let’s acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our lives and as the rightful King of this world, and let’s invite others to do the same.

Toward Love and Good Deeds (150th Anniversary)

November 18th, 2018, Pastor Galen

“And let us consider how we spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together…but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25)

What If They Had Given Up?

Imagine for a moment that Hampden Church never existed. Imagine that 151 years ago when that small group of passionate and visionary individuals met together in the home of John Knight to pray and dream, that they decided that the sacrifice was too great, that the cost was too high, that the dream was too large to be accomplished. Imagine that they said to one another “Let’s just carry on with our lives and go about our days, ignoring the plight of those around us, and pursue lives of comfort and ease.”

Or imagine with me that at any point along the way in this past century and a half, the congregation gathered here in this place said to one another, “let us discontinue meeting together.” Imagine that when the going got tough they just decided to lock the doors and walk away.

Imagine how many lives would not have been transformed, how many souls would not have found peace with God, how many people would have never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. Imagine how many hungry people would not have been fed. Imagine how many hurting, lonely people would never have experienced a loving, supportive community of brothers and sisters in Christ surrounding them in their darkest of times.

Looking Back with Gratitude and Thanksgiving

I for one am grateful to God that that small but committed group who assembled 151 years ago did not decide to let go of their dream. And I’m grateful that week after week, Sunday after Sunday and all throughout the week people have assembled here in this place to worship God together, to learn and grow in love for God and one another, to minister to the needs of the community, and to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:25) as the author of Hebrews says.

Think of all the precious moments in people’s lives that have take place within these walls. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthday parties, anniversaries, graduations. Think of how this church building has been a landmark within the community. Think of all the fellowship meals that have been shared, the ham and oyster dinners going back 85 years, the community gatherings and neighborhood meetings.

And think of all those people who have walked in through those double doors for Sunday morning worship or Bible study with heavy hearts, burdened down with grief, having been tossed about by the cares of this world, having wrestled with doubt and despair, who stepped foot into this sanctuary and immediately received a welcoming hug or a warm smile, whose hearts were stirred by the playing of the organ or piano, who heard the Scriptures read and the Good News of Jesus proclaimed, who came forward and knelt at this altar and cried out to God, who experienced the life-saving grace of God and had their guilty consciences cleansed.

Think of the children and youth who have experienced a safe and nurturing environment to grow in love for God, to be instructed in the faith, to have fun and play and learn and grow, to learn what it means to participate in God’s mission and to be a part of a community, who have had mentors and role models pour into them and invest in their lives.

And think of all those who have walked back out of those doors, having been transformed by the love of Christ, who have gone out into the world to be agents of healing and reconciliation, who have proclaimed the Good News through word and through deed to their neighbors across the street, in other parts of the country or even around the world.

I’m grateful that those saints down through the generations and those gathered here today did not give up meeting together. I’m glad that you stuck it out through thick and through thin. Oh I’m sure there were times you were tempted to toss in the towel. I’m sure there were disagreements, times when the finances were tight, when the congregation felt defeated. But you didn’t give up. You pressed on. You gave sacrificially of your time, talents, and treasure. You  continued to dream, you didn’t lose hope, you continued meeting together. And because you persevered, we are here today.

Moving Forward With Hope and Creativity

But today is not only a day to look back. It is also a day to look forward. Because the needs in our world today are just as great. There are lost and lonely people all around us. There are people who are burdened down with care, people longing for meaning and purpose and a place to belong, people trying to fill the voids in their lives that only God can fill.

But some people today are saying that we are living in a “post-Christian” society. We’re living in a day and age where society so often does not revolve around the church, where it is not assumed that people must come together to worship God. We’re living in a day and age where so many people are skeptical of organized religion, where many people, having felt like they have given God a chance, have now moved on to other things. We’re living in a day and age where religion is seen as more polarizing than unifying, where people have more faith in corporations and governmental organizations than in religious institutions.

And yet, despite what some may say or think, I believe our world needs Jesus now more than ever. I believe that only Jesus can heal our wounds, both individually and as a society. I believe that only Jesus can bring true and lasting peace and security. Only Jesus can bridge the chasmic divisions within our country. Only Jesus can transform our hatred into love, and turn our bitterness into joy. Only Jesus can transform people’s hearts and bring healing, hope and restoration to families and whole communities.

Political leaders and so often even religious leaders will let us down. Corporations will come and go. But in Jesus we can put our complete trust.

And so the idea that we are living in a post-Christendom era does not mean that we should give up meeting together. We should not lose heart and we should not lose hope. We must remember that God is faithful. And we must move forward with confidence, knowing that the good work that God has begun will be brought to completion (Phil. 1:6).

We must continue to assemble together, to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. As the Message paraphrase of the Bible says, “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love” (Hebrews 10:24, MSG). The approaches that have worked in the past might not work in the future. The programs that met the needs of previous generations may seem to meet the felt needs today. And so we must be creative, constantly discerning the needs of our neighbors, constantly in tune with the cries of our community, and ask God for insight to see past the surface and to see the deepest, innermost longings of people’s hearts, and to cry out, “God, here am I, send me!”

Today, as we celebrate this tremendous milestone for our congregation, as we look back with joy, as we share memories, reconnect with old friends, and talk of the wonderful times gone by, let us also look to the future with hope. Let us “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for God who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together…but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25).